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It's Valentine's day. Here's a Valentine's Social Brain post.

It's Valentine's day. Here's a Valentine's Social Brain post.

It's often thought that neuroscience will engender a bleak view of humanity, one where there is no place for the wonders of existence such as romantic love. Well, I want to briefly say that that's rubbish. Neuroscientists actually study how emotions and reason constantly interact. And unlike philosophers (Aristotle perhaps being the great exception), do not relegate emotions to an incidental role in cognition.

What would a neuroscientific explanation of romantic love look like?

Something like this.

When I look into my lover's eyes and feel overwhelmed by my love for her, that's because of hormones swashing through my brain such as dopamine and serotonin. I feel in love because of these chemicals. But what triggers them? Partly animal attraction such as smell and so on. Partly my genes trying to snare me a partner with whom I can reproduce, build a stable and mutually beneficial relationship (so this doesn't preclude homosexual love). And partly my conscious self talking to and being with her and understanding that she is right for me.

The brain is an information-processing hub and all this information leads to the production of the romantic-love-inducing hormones.

In short, these chemicals are sending me head over heels in love because the information being processed (whether at the unconscious or conscious level) all points to her being right for me.

What's lost from the traditional view of romantic love on this picture? I can't help falling for her because my brain is compelling me to do so with hormones. But then, that's just what romantic love is, isn't it? Being compelled beyond any rational control to want someone at all costs? And it's not just animalistic because some of the information being processed, some of the information that leads to the hormonal compulsion, is at the level of self-conscious cognition.

But none of this explains the great mystery: what is the precise formula for chemistry and attraction in any particular case? Neuroscience can only explain the core processes that we all share. It can't explain in full why I fall in love with a particular person. But then, a little mystery in life is no bad thing!


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